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It’s Too Late for a Green New Deal; Can Other Radical Plans Work?

We no longer have the time or the carbon budget left for a gradual transition to renewables.

Los Angeles youth join a nationwide strike from school as they protest climate change and strike for the Green New Deal and "other necessary actions to solve the climate crisis," at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have articulated the Green New Deal (GND), especially Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement. We needed something that focused attention on how serious climate change has become and the need for government action. The GND has shattered the neoliberal insistence upon incremental, market-oriented climate mitigation.

But, considering the emerging climate science and our diminished carbon budget after at least three decades of denial, and with carbon concentration in the atmosphere higher than it has been in 3 million years, it is too late to speed up the slow transition from fossil fuels to renewables with government facilitated renewable building; too late to build renewables under a Keynesian plan that employs all the workers in transition; too late for a transition that makes money and lets us keep living our present lifestyles.

The GND challenged neoliberalism with a “Big Government Plan” for climate mitigation, but as presently envisioned, these policy actions remain completely within a market transition where renewables will only replace fossil fuels by out-competing coal, oil and natural gas.

The GND could greatly speed up this slow transition, but it’s still a plan to let fossil fuels compete for far too long; it still doesn’t regulate production and distribution; it still envisions supplying 100 percent of today’s energy, plus projected growth. The GND is ultimately predicated upon a growing GDP in a business-as-usual scenario where there is enough created wealth to redistribute to marginalized populations.

If it had been implemented in the ‘90s, this carbon-price aided decarbonization, with renewables out-competing fossil fuels, could have worked and largely solved our problem. But now, there is no time and no carbon budget left for such a slow transition; no time for a tapering period or for a carbon price to work its market magic. As Sunrise Movement founder Varshini Prakash told The Guardian, “If there was a free market solution to the climate crisis, we would’ve seen it in the last 40 years.”

It is already possible that we are on the wrong side of a threshold to that cascade of tipping points leading to ”Hothouse Earth” and the destruction of all we love and care about, including the extinction of most species. Fossil fuels are now a potentially lethal toxin already at too high a level in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels must now be kept in the ground. Governments must regulate a scheduled, rapid, managed decline of all fossil fuel production based upon the best science and risk-management expertise.

Instead of a climate mitigation plan that is shoehorned into the economic and political status quo, there is no time to taper-in mitigation to protect the economy: emissions must peak immediately, and substantial emission reduction from the present high of more than 37 billion tons annually must happen immediately.

We don’t have until 2050 for a slow transition. We must cut emissions by half globally by 2030 — and by 65 to 70 percent in wealthy countries like the U.S. and Canada. As climate activist Alex Steffen writes, our emission reduction curve has to bend so steeply that winning slowly becomes the same as losing. Thus, GND decarbonization is a plan to fail.

Of course, like rejecting “Big Government” as a mitigation option, a government-regulated, managed decline affecting long-term international investment is anathema to the business elites who control our governments and many other institutions in our society. They will have to accept the duty of government to regulate in this emergency and join with all other stakeholders in the climate mobilization.

Importantly, instead of a plan offered to consumers to buy their support, climate mitigation should be a responsibility of citizens who recognize their duty to limit damage to future generations. We don’t need urgent action on climate to make life more comfortable and secure for the world’s richest people.

Of course, we will still need mobilization to greatly expand renewable capacity to provide enough energy to keep our society from collapse, and we will need government to stabilize an economy in transition. Still, building renewables at a scale to keep our present economy expanding while reducing emissions is now effectively a pipe dream.

Climate change is a global scale problem requiring more than national solution. What we probably need, along with an improved GND, is a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty, which could provide broad agreement limiting new fossil fuel infrastructure and finally shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables. Hopefully, such a treaty could be the basis for an international scheduled managed decline, updating the work of energy experts Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins.

Another idea proposed by climate activists is a new Marshall Plan to coordinate a powering-down transition within trade blocs and to facilitate the transfer of renewable technology to developing countries.

Presently, these proposals are just interesting ideas which have to become reality fast if we are to keep fossil fuels in the ground globally.

Moreover, 100 percent clean energy has problems not always acknowledged. For instance, under an implemented GND, fossil fuel use could increase elsewhere, such as increased extractivism in the Global South for the minerals necessary to build solar and other renewable technologies.

Finally, the GND was crafted as one party’s plan for government action, but it also requires acceptance by several future governments. This relies upon a political swing to dominant Democratic control that is, at best, highly unlikely. There is no time to wait until at least 2020, let alone the more politically likely 2024. Again, mitigation is now a sprint requiring rapid reduction from present peak emission levels that are a huge drain on our shrinking carbon budget.

Effective emission reduction now requires coalition building and/or bipartisan legislation. It requires buy-in from all political parties and the differing demographics constituting our society. Without this unanimity, the systemic changes necessary won’t be possible.

But if we recognize that climate change is an emergency, and stop trying to pretend that we can effectively mitigate slowly, then we can achieve this broad unanimity and move toward real action.

Climate change has been an emergency for at least a decade, as we passed 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere under a governance system that allowed for only minimal emission reduction. The GND initiative has been a big step forward toward needed government action, but because it remains within neoliberal constraints against actually keeping fossil fuels in the ground, it obviously isn’t enough.

In fact, if we don’t progress further and faster, the GND will become part of the predatory delay that will waste our last chance to continue to evolve.

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